Public versus private

When government creates a quasi-public entity and shifts a well-defined function or responsibility area to it, that can be a good thing. It can often lead to greater focus and business-like efficiencies. With proper accountability, that can be a net positive for the public. A common example: Turning farmland over to a public authority to build and operate a city airport.

But quasi-public entities are ripe for abuse, too. They can remove important processes from direct public scrutiny. They put important public policy questions, not just operational decisions, in the hands of people who are neither elected nor reporting to elected officials.

Some say a broad-based board of directors overcomes these problems by providing sufficient oversight -- but well-meaning directors don't always have the time or inclination to become knowledgeable about all aspects of the corporation’s operations.

City Council and committee meetings -- even most executive sessions -- are by law open to the public. You can even listen to them on the radio. But the RDC's meetings are closed to the public. They don't need to be open, RDC tells us, because the Commercial Appeal has a standing invitation to attend. Their attorney goes further, claiming they are not even subject to Tennessee's open meetings law.

We worry, also, when that paper switches positions -- even to the point of parroting a slogan -- on a plan that contradicts most of the principles the paper set out in an editorial four years ago.

Good Government is supposed to be transparent, hold open meetings, and seek and consider advice and input from its sitizens. Elected officials are supposed to expose both sides of the issues for debate. They are not supposed to use our money to sell us their big new visions. But the RDC has been paying a consultant $3,000/month to run their one-sided promotional campaign. And what of all the "public input" they claim to have listened to? Read one of the buried reports; most of that input was ignored.

After all of this so-called public process, what are the RDC's two big new visions?:
  • A massive, earthen gravity dam, creating millions of square feet of commercial space that the City doesn't need.
  • Overturning a 185-year old sacred covenant, to create another 1.2 million square feet of leasing space.
In our view, these important public policy questions should have been debated, and rejected or approved, by the citizens of Memphis, before turning them over to a secretive, private corporation to carry out -- if ever.

In our view, the results speak for themselves. The Mayor's goal was to create an revitalized public riverfront, while allowing some commercial access if it enhanced public enjoyment. But by the time the RDC came into being, the goal had clearly reversed. It was now to create a riverfront of developers' dreams, while allowing some public access to serve as the justification.

NEXT: The legal issues in a nutshell.